It’s been awhile since Gmail introduced a tabbed version of inbox, but the infamous “Promotions tab” still haunts marketers today. Nobody likes when their efforts end up among dozens of promotional emails, yet that’s where newsletters so often land.
Can you imagine a world with no Gmail tabs? A peaceful haven with 20% higher open rate and conversions that let you sit back and enjoy life with a glass of your favorite cocktail.
Is that what the marketing world would really look like? Let’s take a closer look and figure out if we can get there.
Why would Gmail do that?
Why did Gmail introduce this tabs “system” anyway?
According to Gmail itself, these categories make it easy to focus on messages that are important and read emails of the same type all at once.
According to Derek Halpern, it’s Gmail’s way to make it harder for small businesses to reach people, thus forcing them to buy ads, which is convenient for a company that relies on advertising revenue.
As most things in life, this situation is probably more gray than black and white, but getting to the core of why won’t help the problem. Google does what it wants, and the question is what are you going to do about it.
What looks like promotion gets labeled as promotion
A short answer to the question of “what makes my email go to promotions” is this: if it looks like promotion, it gets labeled as promotion. Click to tweet.
Google’s algorithm is smart and complex, and there is no single silver bullet strategy that will do the magic for your newsletter. The Gmail algorithm looks at many factors including email content, HTML code, sender IP address, etc. Some of those factors are easy to manipulate; others are not. Let’s look at each factor in detail and see what you can do about them.
Below are the factors that make your email go to the Promotions tab and are easy to change. They mostly refer to the pieces of content in your email that classify message as either “promotional” or “conversational”.
Greeting recipient by name
An email looks more personal (like a message from a friend) if it greets you with your name, so using recipient’s name in the first line of the email helps avoid Promotions tab. To add readers’ names to your emails, you need to collect them at the time of signup, and use merge tags when creating your campaigns.
Number of external links
If you include too many external links in your email, that looks like promotion to Gmail. Think about how many links a friend would send you in a single email (yes, Unsubscribe link counts as a link, too). Reducing the number of links will improve your email’s chance of landing in the Primary tab.
Number of images
Heavy use of images also makes Gmail think you’re promoting something, trying to make it look oh so sexy with pictures. Destination > Promotions tab.
Using HTML formatting with multiple div blocks doesn’t look like a conversational email from a friend. Neither does using multiple font sizes, font colors, and other fancy styling options. For a higher chance of landing in the Primary tab, use plain text and don’t tinker with fonts too much.
If it’s not a promotion, why would it have an unsubscribe link? Emails that have an option to unsubscribe often get tagged as promotion by Gmail. However, if you’re building a high-quality, sustainable blog or business, you know that removing this link is not an option (here’s why). Instead, place your unsubscribe link at the bottom of email, as you would a signature. (I’m sure you’re already doing this, duh!)
Obviously promotional language is hard to miss. If you use phrases like “Want to make money now?” or “Buy this product today and get a discount” your email’s final destination is easy to predict.
If you want to get to the Primary tab, make your email look like it’s coming from a friend. Would your friend use more than 2-3 links? Would they send you more than 1-2 images in the body of the email? Would they use sentences like “Buy this shirt today before this promo code expires”? You get the point.
PRO-tip: to check which Gmail tab your email will land in before sending it to subscribers, use this Litmus tool.
If you want to quickly go over your emails to maximize their chances of landing in the Primary tab, I highly recommend you download the Promotions Tab Checklist below.
The bad news is that even if you use all of the tips above and strip your email to the bones of a plain text version, there is still a high chance that your newsletter will end up in the Promotions tab.
Here is why.
An email may look conversational to you, but the way something looks depends on who is looking. Fortunately or unfortunately, machines can see more than we do, and they can determine if an email is promotional by detecting things we won’t notice. That’s why I call the following “difficult-to-change” factors.
Email header markup
What machines see and we don’t is the markup language (code) in email campaigns. When you send an email using an ESP (email service provider), it ads certain markup to your email that identifies it as promotional for Gmail.
That’s the reason why even if you send a plain text email using an ESP, it ends up in the Promotions category. If you look at the raw data of a MailChimp campaign, here’s what you’ll see:
Those X-Mailer, X-Campaign, and X-Report-Abuse headers are almost a sure guarantee this email will end up in the Gmail Promotions category.
You can’t customize markup in MailChimp, but there are ESPs where you can, such as Mandrill, which is an email delivery API by MailChimp. If you get access to your email header, here are several things you could do:
- Don’t include the X-Mailer header;
- Don’t include the X-Campaign / X-Campaignid header;
- X-Report-Abuse and List-Unsubscribe might be okay, but be sure to A/B test this.
Reply-to email address
Another red flag is non-matching “from” and “reply-to” email addresses. Make sure your subscribers can reply to the same email address you’re sending the campaign from. If you’re using MailChimp and want to set up a “reply-to” address that is on your own domain (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org), you might need to verify your domain first.
Is it all worth it?
So let’s quickly recap for a second. Now, unless you already send plain text emails, do you need to turn your email marketing upside down and strip your emails naked, even if your brand calls for colors, graphics, and links?
I see it as a trade-off between how much you are ready to sacrifice and how important it is for you to land in the Primary tab. Personally, I would rather make my newsletters my own, with the styling and links I deem necessary, and suffer a chance to end up in the Promotions. So what? I know that if my emails are truly good and valuable, my subscribers will read them.
Plus, after implementing all these strategies you might find that your emails still land in the Promotions tab, as Gmail algorithm gives no guarantees. Or you might spend tons of time fiddling with settings and finally getting it, only to watch Gmail algorithm get smarter a couple of months later, and all your efforts wiped to zero.
An effort with a much higher return on your time investment, in my opinion, is working on your content and making your material truly good. If you focus on the quality of your content instead of trying to game the Gmail algorithm, your readers will want to read your emails. They will actively look for your messages in their inbox, and will open your emails no matter which tab they are in.
As Taylor Lindstrom so rightly noted, people won’t stop reading your emails because they’re in the Promotions tab. People will leave them there because they weren’t reading them to begin with.
The most effective strategy to avoid Promotions tab
A strategy with the highest guarantee of success for delivering your messages to the Primary tab is asking your subscribers to move your emails there (it’s only a guarantee if they actually do it).
Will they do it? A few of them might. Most probably won’t. After all, who are you to tell them how to organize their inbox? If your emails are truly good, readers will move them to the Primary tab without you asking.
If you decide that asking won’t hurt (which is probably true), here is a pro-tip: add screenshots to illustrate the steps to make this (easy) process even easier for the readers. Extra tip: a video is worth a thousand pictures, so consider adding an animated image like the one below to your instructions. You can create a screenshot GIF with Gyazo.
Importance of testing
I always like to end posts with the remainder to test everything. What worked for someone will oftentimes not work for the next person. Never trust anyone on the Internet. Listen to good advice, TEST IT, then use it if it has proven to work for you.
We’ve covered a whole bunch of techniques, and if you want to keep them in a handy and easy-to-follow checklist, download it for free here.
Are you using any techniques to avoid the Gmail Promotions tab? What has worked and what hasn’t? Let’s chat in the comments!